I have recently returned from the set of a Pagnol film.
At least, that’s what it felt like, although the accent was Dauphinois and everything was in colour, not in black and white.
I spent the day in Revel, a village perched in the Belledonne mountain range overlooking Grenoble. The morning sky was a brilliant, gentian blue and the grassy slopes were warm beneath the sun.
First stop was the two-hundred year old bakery to meet the boulanger, Philippe and La Femme du Boulanger, Geneviève. I watched as the baker weighed out flour, yeast and salt on a pair of scales that looked at least as old as the bakery itself, then tipped it into an ancient mixer the size of a hot tub.
When ready, the dough was put into a cold store to rise...all day. Fortunately, Philippe had prepared some kneaded dough for me to form. Easy peasy, I thought, but of course, it wasn’t. I was supposed to be rolling it into a long, thin sausage but by the time I’d finished, it looked more like a giant pork chop.
Philippe came to my rescue and showed me how to make a tresse, which he then popped into the wood-fired oven.
When he brought it out later, piping hot and golden, I couldn’t help but wish I wasn’t intolerant to gluten. But – hey – that’s life. Sometimes we have to do without the things we love...
Mild masochistic tendencies led me to visit l'huilerie - the walnut press - next, where that delicious walnut oil, which I can no longer tolerate, is extracted. It opened in 1928 and supplied the locals with oil for the next thirty years. It closed due to a decrease in demand but was reopened in 2003 by a voluntary association, l’A.P.P.A.R.. The machinery is strangely beautiful: solid, gleaming cast iron that has stood there for over eighty years, dormant in summer but cranking into action from December through to April.
Then a character straight out of Jean de Florette walked in, blue eyes twinkling beneath his beret, to offer us a drink from the spring on his land. Ah! L’eau des collines...
Finally, I visited an elderly couple who lived on a smallholding. The old man showed me his peacocks and his enormous rabbits then told me to take an egg from the henhouse. I did, marvelling at the unusual rubbery shell.
“That’s the dummy egg,” said the old man, bemused and slightly alarmed. Well, I was one of those queer folk, les gens d’en bas – it was only to be expected.
I arrived home, weary and contented: the experience had set me yearning for a simpler, slower existence. Yet I do realize that life in the mountains is no Pagnol film. It is a harsh way to earn a living, especially in winter.
Because, to quote Pagnol: Telle est la vie des hommes...